Nathan: Exceptional students and their teachers have told us what is needed to support success, and the strategic plan is designed to meet those needs. Students want to feel like they belong in their school community; having encouragement and resources to make serious efforts in school; and to grow socially and emotionally and have their mental health supported. The strategic plan emphasizes strengthening staff-student relationships and creating culturally appropriate learning environments; includes intensive multi-level support for struggling students and a solid basic education for all; integrates SEL strategies into curriculum and instruction and increases awareness/access to mental health supports.
Niehoff: I believe that parental involvement is the best solution for children with behavioral and mental problems. Parents know their children best. I plan to open doors for parents to volunteer at schools, after-school activities, sports, and field trips. This will save some staff costs and improve the parent/teacher relationship. Other initiatives will include involving parents in decisions about children’s health and programming, providing counseling to parents and children, and providing parents with mental health education materials.
4) School safety has been on the minds of many RPS students, educators and parents. What type of response do you think is warranted to solve this problem?
Farmer: There are not enough school shootings to warrant an answer to this question. Considering the public outrage and legislators wasting time writing and rewriting and rewriting gun laws.
Nathan: In response to the rise in disruptive behavior over the past year, each school and the district is developing school climate and safety plans for 2022-23, focusing on student belonging and a menu of discipline strategies. Detailed neighborhood and building crisis management plans are updated and practiced annually, with single point of entry and emergency notification systems in all buildings. School Threat Assessment Teams work closely with police and county support services to assess students following information of a threat to others or a risk to themselves. The strategic action plan emphasizes social and emotional learning for students and ongoing mental health supports.
Niehoff: I will implement the recommendations of the National Association of School Safety Officers. They discuss these recommendations in their report “Protect and Educate: The School Resource Manager and School Violence Prevention”. This report comes from real school safety experts. An example, I would continue to promote the use of school security officers, in uniform, to demonstrate to everyone at school that a safe environment is promoted and present.
5) There is talk of a referendum in 2023 to cover operating expenses. Do you agree with this orientation? Do you think there are other ways the district can address budget shortfalls, either through cost reductions or new sources of funding?
Farmer: There is a need to impress upon Rochester and its employers that the economy should not encourage growth in District 535. Continuing to operate with the current deficit or “zombie budget” is appropriate. I will not support a working referendum for this reason, however, petitioning the legislature is not out of the question. Many school districts will likely do just that, but the funds should reduce the deficit, not fund a growth budget.
Nathan: Expenditure reductions of $7 million are already planned as part of the balanced budget for 2023-2024. The district asked lawmakers to address insufficient state funding for our schools, a primary driver of budget deficits. If per-pupil state funding kept pace with inflation, RPS would receive an additional $17.5 million in annual revenue. If we received full state funding for the special education services we are required to provide, RPS would receive an additional $15 million in annual revenue. In the absence of additional State revenue, an operational referendum must be considered to balance the budget in the years to come.
Niehoff: The school board must demonstrate to the community that it can operate responsibly within budget. This has not been the case for several years when the board operated in deficit or recently when it built four new schools during a period of declining enrolment. During the League of Women Voters debate on 7/14/22, it was declared that a new referendum should include additional elements on strategic planning and the future budget deficit. No respectful company will plan for future deficits. I suggest reducing expenses by first selling buildings that are not being used efficiently.